On rough days in my household of late — when I’m behind on work, my kids are being jerks, and I’m either snapping at them or shoving them in front of yet another screen — I try to focus on a quote I’ve seen floating around on Facebook recently. I’m going to butcher it, but the basic sentiment is that our kids won’t remember specific lessons we taught them or specific arguments we had while we were sheltering in place together. They will, however, remember how we made them feel throughout all of this.
It’s a lovely sentiment, and certainly an emotional lifeline to those of us struggling to balance parenthood and work ― or the sudden, horrible shock of unemployment ― while trying to keep our families safe in a global pandemic.
But I also wonder: Is it true? How much will our kids actually recall about living through the COVID-19 pandemic? And how might those memories change them? HuffPost Parents spoke to three child mental health experts to learn more.
What they remember (if anything!) has a lot to do with age and personality.
No one really knows the age at which children begin forming truly long-lasting memories. Some researchers believe the earliest start around age 3 1/2 and everything before that is lost to a kind of childhood amnesia. Others believe children start forming memories before that time, but those memories don’t necessarily last beyond adolescence. The bottom line? Older kids are more likely to remember what is happening right now, while younger kiddos will probably forget most of it.
“Children under the age of 4 years old are unlikely to retain any first-hand memories of this pandemic later in their lives,” Steven Meyers, a professor of psychology at Roosevelt University in Illinois, told HuffPost.
Meanwhile, kids in elementary school might remember that they were out of school for a stretch, Meyers said, and that people wore masks in public. Older kids and teens will retain a much fuller account of everything happening right now.
But age isn’t everything when it comes to memory formation, which is a complex, layered process. The experts say personality can play a major role as well.
“It really depends on the child,” said Jenny Yip, a Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist. “I have twins, and they have completely different personalities. One kid is more cautious, he’s more observant ― we have to be a bit more careful about what we say around him. The other kid is like, ‘Whatever!’”
In other words, certain kids are just more likely to hang onto everything that’s happening around them.
They are more likely to remember intense emotions.
“Children are much more likely to recall elements of the pandemic that affect their lives directly and vividly,” Meyers said.
If a friend or family member becomes very sick with or dies from COVID-19, that can certainly become a painful permanent memory. But just feeling really afraid of the coronavirus or really sad about all of the changes happening around them could stick with our kiddos, too. That’s one reason why it is so important for parents to be careful about what they’re telling their children about the pandemic — and how.
“Anything that is emotionally salient, kids will remember more often,” said Yip. “If you’re able to separate facts from emotions somewhat, you can really help them walk away from this not as emotionally affected.”
“Singular events, other than those which are truly traumatic, rarely have a long-term effect on children’s emotional and social development. By and large, children are resilient.”
They’re also more likely to retain a broad overview of life from this time.
“Singular events, other than those which are truly traumatic, rarely have a long-term effect on children’s emotional and social development,” said Mark Reinecke, a clinical psychologist and clinical director of the Child Mind Institute’s San Francisco Bay Area center. “By and large, children are resilient.”
But COVID-19 isn’t one event ― it’s many, he said.
“How each child, and family, responds will depend on their life situation,” said Reinecke. “What specific challenges and traumas have they faced? Did a family member die? Was a parent a doctor or a nurse working on the front line? Did a sibling become infected? Did a parent lose their job? Did the family business go bankrupt?”
Of course, so many of those things are completely out of parents’ control. But it can be helpful to remember what is in your hands: letting your children know that while they are in your care, they are safe and loved.
Focus on the positives when possible.
Having some fun with your kid can make a big difference in what they remember down the road, the experts say. Maintain a sense of hope, Reinecke urged, and be really open with your kids about it. Tell them that a positive future lies ahead and that we can help bring it about.
“Create oases of normalcy or happiness when you can. This not only helps children’s well-being but may become part of what children ultimately remember,” said Meyers. “Enjoyable times and special moments are encoded in long-term memory as well as the difficult parts.”
He was quick to add, however, that parents should not be hard on themselves right now. If you don’t have it in you to be the fun, jolly parent these days, don’t beat yourself up about it. “Good enough is good enough,” Meyers said.
How we frame this after the fact matters, too.
Both Meyers and Reinecke emphasized the role that family narratives and artifacts (photos, news articles, journals, etc.) play in subsequent memory formation — and this is certainly a well-documented crisis. Kids will “create their own memory and narrative of these times” in part through the images they see now, the news they read and hear, and so on.
The stories we tell our kids will also directly shape how they recall this stretch in their lives. It can help to remind children of the life skills they’re gaining and the values they learning from all of this, like how crucial they are to your family.
“I want them to remember this as a learning experience about resiliency,” Yip said of her own children. “I hope to be able to say to them, ‘Oh, look at that time. That was one of the worst events that’s happened in this century, and we survived it.’”
A HuffPost Guide To Coronavirus
- Stay up to date with our live blog as we cover the COVID-19 pandemic
- What happens if we end social distancing too soon?
- What you need to know about face masks right now
- How long are asymptomatic carriers contagious?
- Lost your job due to coronavirus? Here’s what you need to know.
- Everything you need to know about coronavirus and grief
- The HuffPost guide to working from home
- What coronavirus questions are on your mind right now? We want to help you find answers.
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